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King Lear (James Earl Jones)

For me, watching Shakespeare is like watching a foreign movie in a language I can only partly understand. I know there are reams of nuances and even important plot elements that I miss out on because I struggle with Elizabethan English. And in this case I was exhausted and had to interrupt the viewing with a few hours sleep. All by which is to say that I know I didn't get as much out of this King Lear as it deserves. (I did however realise that I'd forgotten how closely intertwined the two stories were... and this from someone who had to study the text in both high school and university. Tsk tsk tsk.)

Still, even in my addled and sleep-deprived state I could appreciate this 1974 video archive of one of Joseph Papp's famous New York Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park performances. Technically the picture and sound shows its age but I found it curiously piquant to see a TV camera roll into frame every so often. There's a robust freshness, even after thirty years, in a live performance captured before a live and appreciative audience which the sight of a camera reinforces rather than breaks.

James Earl Jones - literally frothing at the mouth at times - conveys the physical power and mental frailty of Lear. I wouldn't go so far as to say he's uniformly brilliant, some of the moments seem affected, but the scene where he rages against his daughters (responsible for most of the froth) was certainly able to shake me out of my near-slumber with its intensity. His exit garnered applause from the park, heck almost from the couch.

It's disconcerting to see Rene Auberjonois's Edgar - whom I associate with contained (read: uptight) characters going all out during the Tom O'Bedlam scenes. He's quite wonderful really and I can see why Stanley Kauffmann in his collection of theatre criticism, Persons of the Drama, calls him "the American Conservatory Theater's best actor" all the way back in 1969. (I really should finish that book, it's an incisive read.)

Raul Julia as Edmund is dynamic and virile... but I didn't find him terribly evil. He seemed to be having far too much fun to be bad.

Paul Sorvino, whose singing I loved on the CD of The Baker's Wife (recorded only a couple of years after this production) didn't work for me here. His Gloucester had little presence and his wailing was too broad for a tragedy, even an outdoor production where the acting necessarily needs to be bigger.

Every character seemed timeless but there was something about Frederick Coffin's Oswald that was anachronistic. Maybe it was his "modern" acting style. Or maybe it was his hair, probably suitably stylish then but now just screaming "70s! 70s! 70s!"

The bit of casting that worked best for me was Tom Aldredge, in fact three years older than Jones and looking it. This Fool was much more of a contemporary of Lear's than the stereotypical youth of other portrayals (including Kurosawa's Ran). Aldredge's performance, coupled with that common bond of age - which never quite reaches camaraderie - made for a rendition both powerful and affecting.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 20, 2005 11:50 PM.

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